Back in 1985, Margaret Levi, an American visitor to our fair shores, was hit by an Australia Post courier car. She and her future husband Robert Kaplan, both from Seattle, committed the subsequent payout money to "developing a museum-quality collection" of contemporary Australian indigenous art. The Kaplan & Levi Collection, much of which is housed in or has been pledged to the Seattle Art Museum, was born.
Ancestral Modern: Australian Aboriginal Art by Pamela McClusky, Wally Caruana, Lisa Graziose Corrin and Stephen Gilchrist (Seattle Art Museum/Yale, $65) was published to accompany the exhibition of the same name and to celebrate the first collection of contemporary Aboriginal art to enter a major museum in the United States.
Judging from the superb colour reproductions of nearly 80 works in various media including ochres, acrylics, fibres, clay and photography by such artists as Emily Kam Kngwarray, Narritjin Maymuru, Queenie McKenzie, Yvonne Kookmatrie and Ricky Maynard, it must be quite a collection.
And this is quite a book, with informative essays and commentaries from two Australian and two American curators supplementing images of enormous scope and variety.
For example, one of the most original and striking works featured is Utopia artist Gloria Tamerr Petyarre's Leaves (2002, synthetic polymer paint on canvas), its thousands of white strokes forming undulating patterns that suggest not only leaves in the wind but also animal fur. By contrast, white dots in Rover Thomas' Home Country (1984, natural pigments on canvas) serve to divide three bold rectangles in yellow, red and black - an abstract Gibson Desert Gloria.
Another great collector of contemporary Australian indigenous art is Australia's Patrick Corrigan AM. And Power + Colour: New Painting from the Corrigan Collection of 21st-century Aboriginal Art by Jane Raffan (Macmillan, $125) is another great book (three times the size of Ancestral Modern!), not so much a survey but rather "a catalogue of Corrigan's connoisseurship" and a showcase for "the dominant focus of Corrigan's acquisitions since 2008" (he's been collecting for 40 years).
Nearly 130 paintings by 76 major artists including Mark Anderson, Weaver Jack, Paddy Japaljarri Sims, Wakartu Cory Surprise and Yannima Tommy Watson receive dazzlingly good full-page and double-page reproductions. Again, contrasts abound.
In Carol Maanyatja Golding's Walu (2008, synthetic polymer paint on linen), topography explodes in fireworks of yellows, reds, oranges, greens and blues - form and colour as signifiers vs form and colour as pure sensory experience. Whereas in Muni Rita Simpson's Karlamilyi (2008, synthetic polymer paint on canvas), the vibrating near- complementaries green and orange serve to control and direct a composition split by the deep blue of the river running down its centre.
Jane Raffan's text brilliantly combines history, biography, politics, anthropology and art theory, while another notable feature of the book is the detailed artist biographies at the back, making Power + Colour, in addition to its other virtues, an important reference work.
Very different in scope and intent than the previous two books, though certainly no less impressive or important, is TiwiArt/History/ Culture by Jennifer Isaacs (Miegunyah Press, $120), "the first complete volume to bring together the strands of Tiwi history and cultural expression and provide the context for contemporary Tiwi art".
The Tiwi are indigenous to Bathurst and Melville islands, the Beagle Gulf lying between their lands and Darwin to the south. As Pedro Wonaeamirri writes in his Tiwi statement which prefaces the book: "Tiwi culture is different to mainland Australian Aboriginals. The Tiwi culture is different; the language is different."
A work of art history and social anthropology, the book places the Tiwi people's distinctive art - carvings such as the ubiquitous Pukumani poles, paintings, prints and pottery, all crackling with hypnotic cross-hatching and flexible geometric patterns - firmly within the context of cultural evolution over the past 100 years and current art practice. This is reflected in the book's structure, large sections of which are devoted to Tiwi culture, history, artefacts and art and the work of the art centres on both Bathurst and Melville islands.So there aren't just reproductions of artworks (though they are as numerous as they are beautiful) but archival and contemporary photographs depicting ceremonies, people in the process of painting each other's bodies and artists at work or with their completed work. Together with Jennifer Isaac's well-researched and detailed yet highly readable text, the more than 800 images open a window on the extraordinary richness that is Tiwi art, history and culture.
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